Bill Nikides has spent much of his adult life working in the Muslim world, engaging cultures and worldviews in North Africa, Egypt, the Middle East, and in Central, South, and East Asia. Regarded as a leading expert in Muslim ministry, specifically on Insider Movements and their impact on cultures, he is director of i2 Ministries (East Asia) and an Advancing Native Missions missiologist.
Maybe you haven't heard, but the most explosive issue in global missions within the evangelical church today is something called "Insider Movements." You aren't alone if you don't know anything about it, as most of the evangelical world in the West knew nothing of the movement until about the year 2000 when a series of articles was published in missionary journals trumpeting a new way for Muslims to enter the kingdom of God. The announcement came with a lot of fanfare. Hundreds of thousands, even millions, of Muslims were suddenly said to be finding eternal life with Jesus. Praise the Lord for this movement of grace, right?
For years, the latest report from the mission field was that evangelical labor in Muslim countries was slow and arduous’that is, until the Insider meteor entered our atmosphere. As it stands today, Insider Movements occupy a great deal of the evangelical world's missions resources, some of its brains, and sadly, for reasons I will introduce here, many of its dreams. It has become a go-to option for all sorts of traditional evangelicals working with ostensibly reputable missions organizations such as Navigators, Frontiers, Summer Institute of Linguistics (a branch of Wycliffe), Global Partners for Development, and the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. Some embrace the Insider Movement label and identity; others prefer to remain low key. In many cases entire organizations’while in others, only some individual members’are committed to its core principles. Even worse, it appears that some missionaries and agencies are guilty of dissembling so as to maintain plausible deniability. But before we go deeper, we have to ask two basic questions.
What Is It and Why Don't We Know More About It?
Here are a couple of stock definitions to get us on our way. Insider Movements (IM) are variously defined as "popular movements to Christ that bypass both formal and explicit expressions of Christian religion" (Kevin Higgins, "The Key to Insider Movements," Internal Journal of Frontier Missiology, Winter 2004). Another definition Higgins offers is that they are "movements to Jesus that remain to varying degrees inside the social fabric of Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, or other people groups." In other words, as John Ridgeway of the Navigators relates, Insider Movements advocate "becoming faithful disciples of Jesus within the culture of their people group, including religious culture."
Fundamentally, Insiders are those who profess faith in Christ but remain members of their original religious communities; Muslims remain Muslims, Hindus remain Hindus, and Buddhists remain Buddhists. In the Muslim world that means they must acknowledge one exclusive God, Allah, and that Mohammed is his final and greatest messenger. They remain members of the mosque, practice the five pillars of Islam, live openly in their cultures as Muslims, participate in Muslim sacrifices and feasts, and identify themselves as Muslims. In many cases, I'm familiar with baptized Christians who are persuaded to re-enter the mosque after renouncing their Christian identities. In the case of Muslim Insiders, most acknowledge four sacred books: the Law, Psalms, "Gospel" (as a book originally given to Jesus, but no longer in existence), and Koran. Of these texts, many assume that since the Koran is the latest, it is still the greatest, though others see both containing God's Word. Insiders typically claim the Bible as inspiration for their view, at least part of it. For example, they see the stories of Naaman and Elisha in 2 Kings 5, the pagan sailors in Jonah, Balaam and Balak, the Samaritans, and the Council of Jerusalem as proof positive that believers in Jesus can have two passports’one stamped with the symbols of Islam, and the other with Jesus.
Inside Out and Unbiblical
There are, of course, major problems with such an approach to missions and evangelism. First, Insiders make the unbiblical assumption that such biblical passages teach that true believers can have a purely inward faith that can be manifested inside any faith system, including that of other non-Christian religions.
Second, practitioners and Insider missiologists (or scholars of the theology of missions) ignore the fact that the Bible is loaded with texts, even entire books, devoted to distinguishing truth from error and true religion from false religion. In other words, doctrine matters and has to be central in our theology of missions. Unfortunately, doctrine is surprisingly absent from much Insider literature, and rarely do their proponents address the twin topics of idolatry and false religion. Instead, Insiders suppose that religions are relatively harmless cultural creations, that they are man-made and therefore disposable. Even Christian articles of faith, such as the church and the sacraments, can be said to be cultural creations that can simply be replaced with other things in Muslim cultures.
What Every Christian Should Know
The Insider Movements are not new and spontaneous acts of the Holy Spirit bringing a great advancement of missions. Sadly, the philosophy was invented in American missionary laboratories and then imported into Muslim cultures. On the whole, nationals in various countries do not want it. Muslim-background Christians are clear thinking in this regard, much more so than some contemporary missions theorists: embracing Christ means becoming a new creation, and that means becoming part of a new family with a new identity. Yes, new Christians ought to continue living with their families and neighbors, but those relationships no longer define who we are at the most basic level. The people who emerge from Islam know that with absolute certainty. And yet well-funded American missionaries continue to arrive with defective theology and, in some cases, actually talk converts back into Islam, allegedly "for the sake of Jesus." What could be stranger than that? The people I know, even most of the Insiders, understand that it's wrong to do things like alter the words "Son," "Son of God," and "Father" in the New Testament, but it makes it easier for Muslims consequently to accept Jesus (see the chart on page 58 for examples).
The problem is not simply that some evangelical missionaries have gone astray and compromised the gospel, but that our churches at home and abroad are deaf to the voices that could offer correction. To begin with, we might listen to the many Muslim-background Christians all over the world who strenuously object to the spread of Insider philosophy.
Given the covenantal responsibility we all share for global missions, Insiders represent a direct and profound threat to the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church of Jesus Christ. Further, they demonstrate the limitations of an evangelicalism that has broken from its moorings and become infatuated with cultural relevance. Religious inclusivism and missions are like oil and water. Nevertheless, it also represents an opportunity. We can learn a great deal from Muslim-background Christians who are manning gospel lighthouses in nations around the world. They can help us keep from running aground.